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Top middle school counselor shares advice on how to move forward with youth mental health crisis

A 6th grade pupil walks down a stairwell at his middle school. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
A 6th grade pupil walks down a stairwell at his middle school. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

America’s school counselors have a difficult task before them on the ground as they face a national youth mental health crisis.

U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy issued an advisory on this earlier this month saying the pandemic has contributed to already rising numbers in anxiety, depression and suicide rates among adolescents.

Alma Lopez is the lead school counselor at Livingston Middle School in Merced County, California, and was recently named the American School Counselor Association’s School Counselor of the Year. At her school, she’s seeing behavioral challenges and struggles to make friends among students.

Some kids don’t want to come to school, she says, while others want to learn in person all of the time. The school’s counselors have been working to help students learn how to maintain friendships and solve problems in a healthy way.

“Many of the kids were last in a building that was somewhat normal in the fourth grade, and now they’re in the middle school,” she says, “and they’re trying to figure out who they are.”

Lopez and her team recently did a suicide prevention lesson about supporting friends and seeking help for the school’s 800 students. The counselors asked the students if they wanted to talk about the lesson — and 200 students, a quarter of the student body, reached out to seek help, she says.

The counselors followed up with the students and in some cases made referrals to more experienced excerpts outside the school to address some more challenging mental health concerns, she says.

Resilient students asking for support helps counselors address this crisis during a time when counseling offices are busy, Lopez says.

“We need to make sure that we, as school counselors, that we as educators, that we as the adults in the lives of young people are actively taking care of ourselves,” she says, “putting that oxygen mask on ourselves first so that we can be there to support our students through the many, many difficult challenges that they’re having.”

Like many places in the country, Lopez’s community has experienced a lot of collective loss and grief. Last year, nine primary caregivers died for reasons unrelated to COVID-19, and now the community is experiencing more loss due to the disease.

In California’s Central Valley, students living in farming communities don’t always have access to the resources they need because of the location.

When Lopez first started working in her school district, she was one of two school counselors. Her team has since expanded to five.

The need for more counselors predates the pandemic, she says, but now her school is receiving funding to provide the services students need.

Lopez is hopeful the services in her community will continue to grow and notes that schools around the country need to hire the number of mental health professionals recommended by national organizations.

The American School Counselor Association recommends a ratio of one counselor per 250 students — a goal her school hasn’t reached yet. But Lopez says the conversation around mental health is happening in schools in a new way.

“Mental health was not something that we talked about so openly before, and there was a stigma to it,” she says. “And I think that the conversation about ‘mental health is health’ happening … at the national and state levels in a way that it had not before.”

In her community, Lopez and her team created a “virtual calming room” that gives students access to resources that help with journaling, movement and visual relaxation in addition to providing hotline numbers for kids in crisis.

The school also formed a student-led B.I.O.N.I.C Team, which stands for “believe it or not, I care.” Members of the team will reach out to new students or kids fighting an extended illness to support them, Lopez says.

“Those would be the two things that I think are things that school counselors and folks in a school building can do almost immediately to help young people,” she says.

If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (En Español: 1-888-628-9454; Deaf and Hard of Hearing: 1-800-799-4889) or the Crisis Text Line by texting 741741.

Community college students, tell us about your mental health struggles.

Ashley Locke produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Chris BentleyAllison Hagan adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.